Phthursday Musings: Cash for the Titans
or, Epic SAGAmints
My alma mater is Illinois Wesleyan University. A few of you reading this are fellow alumni. Maybe even some I’m not aware of!
IWU is the classic small Midwestern liberal arts college. There are about 2,000 students, the campus is full of beautiful bbbbrrrrrrrrrick buildings, etc. etc.
Today is an annual giving event called “All In For Wesleyan”. There are two goals here. One, the obvious one, is raw fundraising. But there is also a related, weirder, and possibly more important goal. Colleges, you see, are ranked based on the percentage of alumni who donate. Whether it’s $20 or $20,000, a donor is a donor, and this metric is key in the larger rubric of ranking colleges against one another, and even more so in the liberal arts realm, especially for places like IWU.
To the extent that we might say that there’s a “relationship” between an alum and their alma mater, I suppose there are generalizations which can be made about the differences between such relationships for different types of colleges. We Titans, I think, are - on average - supposed to maintain a stronger relationship over time, are supposed to think in more familial terms… something like that.
Since after grad school I lived in Normal for 5 years, and even had a radio show again at WESN, I probably had a closer “alumni relationship” than most for a while. That’s many years in the past now, though, and that relationship seems to have faded quite a bit.
But there are also some extenuating circumstances though. I think they get at heart of this whole “relationship” thing and maybe even get to the heart of higher education generally. I admit, I don’t know if it’s totally right to generalize, but I only know what I know, and hey, these are my musings.
Several months ago I was invited to a FB group for alums concerned about developments at IWU. It’s a long story which I’m going to super-condense here. I mean, it’s me, so super-condense isn’t a thing, but, um, here goes…
Last year, the university signaled an intention to drop several majors, and in the process let go some tenured faculty. These majors included Religion - which, given the word Wesleyan in the school name, you might think an odd thing to drop. This process began before the pandemic hit, but when the pandemic came, it created an impetus / opportunity to plow ahead, against the wishes of faculty and alumni.
There is a long-standing tension to IWU. It is at once a very liberal and very conservative place. Unlike some of the better-known liberal arts colleges - Oberlin, Carleton, Macalester - IWU has a very strong Greek system on campus, puts a lot of focus on athletics, and has a decidedly corporate streak to it, including a very close relationship with a Fortune 100 company (State Farm Insurance, still headquartered in Bloomington.) And yet it is still very much a liberal arts college, complete with all sorts of artsy types. There is a fair argument to be made that this tension is actually central to what makes IWU as good as it is - it very much is a place where right can meet left in a number of positive ways.
Many institutions like IWU have not been doing well in recent years. Smaller schools with lesser endowments have shuttered. This is at the same time that the middle to smaller state universities are also struggling mightily. I can’t claim to have the best understanding of what all of the issues are, but there is definitely something out of control with college economics. Tuition has become increasingly untenable and state support has fallen off. Here in Illinois, at least, state budgets have increasingly been balanced by a series of cuts to higher education. The state doesn’t directly fund private schools, but the cuts also impact things like student grants. (This is the point where I would emphasize that the Democrats have controlled the General Assembly for decades and have held the governor’s office for all but 4 of the last 18 years, so don’t think for a second that you can feel good about just blaming Republicans.)
The changes being pursued by the Board of Trustees and the new President were interpreted as a significant shift away from the liberal arts tradition. Slash liberal arts majors, gut some other programs, apparently focus more energy on things like business programs, and claim all along that this is just meeting the students where they’re at.
There is what you do, and then there is how you go about doing it. It’s not that there wasn’t some merit to the idea that there were insufficient numbers in some programs. But there were real questions about things like recruitment, about faculty input… and from where many of us were sitting, the President and the Board just steamrolled over people’s concerns.
Fast forward to today. I’ve seen comments from people who are truly pained by deciding whether or not to donate. They feel the university administration can’t be trusted, but they feel like by withholding donations, the real people they’d be hurting are the current students.
This all got me thinking about my relationship with my alma mater, and in turn, my other relationships with other institutional or abstract concepts.
When we were in college we would remark about how one day we would graduate and then we would matter again to the university, since the people they cared most about were prospective students and alumni.
I knew people who graduated and never looked back. I’m sure some of them have never donated. For one reason or another they felt burned by their experiences.
I wasn’t in that camp, though I did feel like maybe I wouldn’t be donating until I was done paying off my college loans. Which, you know, took a while. Stafford Loan payoffs are often built for 20 years, and anecdotally, I think most people I know took most of those 20 years to pay off their undergraduate loans. And, yeah, we all had them.
The idea of the relationship with the alma mater is something I think we first heard as prospective students. It was constantly reinforced. I’m not sure what it all was, but Homecoming, various alumni events… there was always something going on like that. Then you graduate and you get the alumni magazine - a very good one at that - and you feel like you’re still in touch. I’m sure it’s common that students are in touch with their professors, that people’s primary peer groups still date back to college… I don’t doubt that for many other people the connections are strong, even decades later.
What I feel, though is that we have drifted apart, more than could just be explained by time or distance. The physical campus, in my mind, evokes the same kind of memories as houses I used to live in. But the institution doesn’t resonate. I don’t have any IWU gear, or a sticker on my car. Every so often I see someone with a shirt or hat on and it can lead to a conversation, but mostly, it just seems… uninteresting. Not especially relevant. And, well, I think I’m the kind of person who would entertain a relationship like that. I’m interested in all sorts of far sillier things, which META-SPIEL readers must realize by now.
Kamala Harris was in Chicago this week, doing a whirlwind tour of a few stops. At some point she was at a bakery on the South Side with other politicos, including the Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton. It was mentioned - in a news blurb - how Harris and Stratton had both been in the same sorority. Not at the same school, of course, just the same set of Greek letters.
Well. I know that means something to some people. But to me, that’s only slightly more relevant as finding out we were both born on the same day of the week. (Phthursday, if you’re wondering.)
And it occurs to me that that’s indicative of what’s missing. When IWU has held alumni events, they’ve tended to be the kinds of things grooved for people for whom Greek ties might matter. This isn’t a judgment of such people! It’s an observation though that systems revolve in certain ways. Look at the IWU Board of Trustees, and what you primarily see are straight white male businessmen, many of whom have work titles like President or Vice-President. If somehow they made me a trustee tomorrow… I wouldn’t want my damn job title up there. And that probably speaks volumes to not being the kind of person they would make a trustee tomorrow.
A liberal arts college, though, is full of people who think like I do about things like that. And maybe in our first years after graduation, our ties can still be strong because of recency, because our professors are still there, etc. But in subsequent years, the kinds of things which keep us tied together aren’t businessman-style alumni gatherings, or making huge donations, or returning to campus to see football games we didn’t go to when we were ourselves students. Sure, there’s a lot of natural drift in there. But I think for IWU, there’s been even more to it.
The current administration may be problematic, but I think it goes beyond that. The university president when I was a student was this Minor Myers jr., a weird, maybe even revered figure, a man who enjoyed cataloguing the trees on campus and playing the violin and all sorts of other things. He was the emobodiment of the liberal arts, encouraging people to do things like double major in biology and music. The people who followed, who might have all sorts of wonderful qualities, couldn’t hope to be quite like that, and would have been foolish to have tried. But over time the administration as a whole, even while it has done more with things like diversity, has felt like it has slid away from liberal arts for its own sake. I really don’t think this is exclusive to IWU - I actually think this is indicative of Clintonian neoliberalism - but nevertheless there does seem to be some kind of slippage there beyond broader trends.
As an alum, how might my relationship with my alma mater serve me?
Here’s what I would find worthwhile. I’d like to meet a smaller number of other alumni who live very nearby, and with whom we might also be able to, up front, find one additional thing in common. I’d be interested in a very informal book circle sort of thing where we read a book from an IWU professor or alum. If they’d been more accessible and more frequent, I might even have gone to the occasional lecture from a professor visiting the Chicago area.
I don’t have a whole passel of frat brothers whose names I had to memorize as part of some intitiation or whatever. The total number of people I went to college with whom I have actually physically seen in the last five years is three, and one of them lives in Japan! But even so I remain interested when I see something that’s IWU related. If there were more little things, I’d be more interested. But weird alumni drinking sessions at weird alumni-owned bars… not so much.
But the more and more things are about money, even though I could afford to donate, the less interested I am. Foolish me, I wasn’t career oriented as an undergraduate, and by and large, I’m still not. What I do for a living doesn’t define me. My family does, my random passions do… and, in my mind, that’s what most of the people I knew from college were like, and that’s why we went to a place like Wesleyan!
Months ago I was going to write something like this, and I had a hard time thinking through how to make it relevant for more than just 6 people who might be reading this. But over the course of the day as I’ve thought about it more, I think that the specifics are less notable than the generalities.
I’m not a sociologist. In fact, I haven’t taken a sociology class since high school. My whole time at a liberal arts college and never a class in sociology, anthropology, or psychology!
I’ve read enough though to have a basic understanding of strong ties and weak ties. I’ve read how it’s not just having close friends but also being part of a community - especially your neighborhood, but also other kinds of communities - which can signify emotional health and in turn physical health.
I feel like the kinds of ties which have traditionally existed between people and institutions like colleges are getting weaker. This may not be universal but it does seem like, for large parts of the public, this is absolutely true. Not just colleges but also other schools, churches, fraternal organizations… sometimes these connections are being replaced with online ties, but those are often poor facsimilies. You’re connected, but you’re not.
And I’ll argue that an institution like IWU needs to get hip to this, and needs to do a lot more to strengthen its ties with its alumni. And, well, they might very well think they’re doing so. All In For Wesleyan was, by their accounts, a smashing success, with over 3,000 individual donors, and potentially raising over $2,500,000. They’re the kind of results that can ofuscate that there’s a real problem - one which may be eminently addressable, but where they may actually be headed in the wrong direction.
Unfortunately we seem to have settled into a place where ties are defined chiefly by money. This is nothing new, of course! But these other kinds of ties are constantly eroded over time. I even see this sort of thing in grade school communities. PTOs focus so much on fundraising events, and then get the idea that increased donor participation means increased participation… but what about the people who don’t have as much to donate? Or who don’t associate donating and participation as the same thing? Our PTO seems to get this, but it hasn’t made it easy to understand how to enhance participation, because people are so increasingly trained to define money as participation and participation as money.
A liberal arts mindset should be ideal for breaking free of that trap.
Honestly, these don’t feel like well-developed thoughts. They feel like thoughts which… warrant seeing people and actually talking about them. Maybe there are other alumni who feel the same way?
As a final note, here is a photo of Gulick Hall, where I lived my first two years:
See the dividing wall in the foreground, lower left? We saved the world one day, with help from that wall.
You see, the Chinese - all billion-plus of the Chinese - were going to jump all at once. In so doing they were going to knock the earth out of its orbit. We knew this, because it was thoroughly reported in the Weekly World News.
So we did what any college students would do. We organized. We sent a correspondent live to Beijing to report on what was happening, and had him broadcast live on WESN. Oh, yeah, that correspondent was me.
So at the Gulick Wall, we had just enough college students available to counteract the force of the entire population of China jumping all at once, if only we could time it right. And we could, because of my helicopter reporting.
We’ve allowed this story to go mostly unreported over time. But some of us are still monitoring Beijing. You never know when they might try again. And when they do, hopefully the newest crop of students will be prepared to thwart them again.